Facebook conversation with a preacher

I wanted to share a Facebook conversation about faith that I was having with a “rising star” local preacher on his public page. I’m not sure if he was busy or what, but I found his responses to be remarkably ambiguous and vague. I didn’t expect to change his mind on anything, but hopefully his 4300 followers will read this exchange and maybe it will cause some of them to scratch their heads regarding their confidence in the methods they are using to determine what they believe is true.

Also, I used my public Facebook page in the hopes that people may ask me questions. Even though this was a public conversation, I blurred the names and pictures to maintain a level of respectful discourse. This is an example of what I call, Facebook Street Epistemology.

As expected, I did not get a response to my final question.

Happy critical thinking!


Don’t argue science with someone who doesn’t understand science

I was giving someone some advice who asked the following:

“I don’t really know much about cosmology. But there seems to be lots of these arguments that there was a place and time before the big bang, or a place and time beyond space time, etc., where a potential deity could exist (I sense huge false probability from believers [sic] part on this, as I cannot prove them not existing). Any good responses to this kinda stuff?”

My response has two parts.

First, learn science for the sake of science. Learn about cosmology because it’s freaking amazing to think about. In other words, read science books because you want to know how things actually work. For cosmology, I recommend the following popular science books: A Brief History of Time (Hawking), A Universe from Nothing (Krauss) and Why Does E=MC2 (Cox/Forshaw).

Second, don’t let Young Earth Creationists and other anti-science apologists suck you in to arguments about science. While these discussions are often fun, they also often result in the backfire effect. If your interlocutor valued the scientific evidence, then they wouldn’t believe as they do in the first place. The goal should be to highlight the deficiency in their epistemology.  Most of these people started out being told a belief is true, believed it using “faith,” and just now are trying to back fill the belief support with some semblance of scientific evidence.

They are not weighing all of the evidence and forming a belief, rather they are selecting for the fragments of evidence, little slivers here and there, that might support the belief they already have. The only successful intervention here is to help them see the hollowness of their starting epistemology (i.e., faith) as a way of knowing.

What I do find interesting as that many of the theists (and others) who want to argue design, Big Bang, evolution, etc., are implicitly agreeing that evidence is a more convincing device by which to support a truth claim. So with these folks, my questions are usually around, “How could you know that your belief is incorrect?” and “Have you ever considered what evidence it would take for you to change your mind on the belief that your God is real?” – those kinds of questions.

If they can’t think of anything, then I ask them, “Since there is no evidence that would change your mind, is evidence really that important to you? Let’s talk about what you’re really using to support the belief: faith. Is faith a reliable method for determining what’s true?”

Happy critical thinking!

The testable faith of snake-handling preachers

timber rattlerAnother preacher has died at the hands of his delusion. This time it was 42 year old Jamie Coots of Middlesboro, Kentucky. In 2012 it was Mark Wolford from Morgantown, West Virginia. Both men died from rattlesnake bites they received while “demonstrating” their faith.

While painful, a rattlesnake bite in the United States is rarely a death sentence. The vast majority of rattlesnake bite victims survive by seeking prompt medical attention, but because both Mr. Coots and Mr. Wolford were so incredibly deluded by their religious convictions, they waited on their faith to save them.  Why?  Because the two pastors took the words written in Mark 16:17-18 literally. That scripture reads,

“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

They believed. And as a result of that belief, each felt he would be protected from harm – which of course they weren’t. Rattlesnakes do what they do, venom does what it does, the human body reacts how it reacts, and now Mr. Coots and Mr. Wolford are dead.

I don’t have the details on Mr. Coots, but Mr. Wolford was bitten in the thigh by a timber rattler. Timber rattlers, as with all rattlesnake species, have large, retractable fangs which act as venom delivery syringes. The older and larger the snakes, the bigger the payload of venom they deliver. Rattlesnakes may also be able to control the amount of venom they inject. In other words, sometimes a rattlesnake may bite and not inject any venom at all – possibly to serve as a shot across the bow, while on other occasions a snake will inject the full, deadly amount. Another amazing adaptation of a rattlesnake is their namesake; they advertise their discontent to all by shaking their keratin tipped tails. They rattle.

We can only assume that both Mr. Coots’ and Mr. Wolford’s snakes were tired of being man-handled, their rattling had not worked to warn these odd, pale, loud, bouncing primates of the danger they faced, therefore each snake moved to their final option. Venom.

What happened next is not for the squeamish. Timber rattlesnake venom is difficult to pin down because there is quite a bit of variation within the species, but let’s assume that these particular reptiles had Type B venom. Type B is mostly hemotoxic and is a particularly nasty blend of enzymes, amino acids, and other bits and pieces which roll up to form a toxic saliva that practically melts bodily tissues (the one two punch of necrosis with coagulopathy). Cells are destroyed by the millions while at the same time the bodies’ normal ability to stop the melt-off by blog-clotting is dismantled. The body is liquefied.

So Mr. Wolford, being bitten in the thigh, must have been in excruciating pain. That is a huge muscle and the effects of high-speed necrosis on that much body tissue must have been nauseating.

According to a Washington Post account of Mr. Wolford’s incident, somewhere in the process of waiting for faith to save him – several hours after the bite – the reality of unbearable pain along with the visual and olfactory cacophony of decaying body tissue finally pushed the fiction of faith healing to the part of the brain that houses the Tooth Fairy. Someone made an emergency call to the Bluefield Regional Medical Center.

It would seem that even some snake handlers have a threshold of pain tolerance that once passed, eclipses Mark 16:17-18 with the reality and potential relief medical science. For Mr. Wolford that threshold was crossed too late. For Mr. Coots, medical treatment was refused. For both, reality, as it so often does, ignored what people hope is true. Each man died a senseless, faith-fueled, death.

“Darwin award” memes float around the internet when these types of things happen but frankly I don’t like those. First, they suggest that these snake-handling deaths somehow influence natural selection, which is biologically inaccurate and may inadvertently propagate a misunderstanding of what Darwinian natural selection actually is. But more than that, these are sad stories of religious delusion, with the only redeeming part being that at least these guys didn’t take innocent lives with them by way of grenade-laden vests or dynamite-packed car trunks. But make no mistake, the depths of their delusions ran no less deep.

There is nothing noble about these deaths. There is nothing commendable about this level of commitment to faith. All that happened here was that naturally non-aggressive, wonderfully complex, crotalus horridus were harassed by large mammals who should have known better. The snakes bit the mammals and as predicted, without medical treatment, the mammals died.

Reality doesn’t care what you believe.